Denialism: Sometimes there's no other way to describe it. Except maybe one.

Here we go again.

Every so often, one of the--shall we say?--less popular members of our crew of science bloggers, someone who, despite being an academic whose area of expertise is ostensibly science communication, has stepped in it again. I'm referring, of course to Matt Nisbet. Only this time, it's not him lecturing us just on how to combat creationism. No, this time around, he isn't limiting himself to just that, although that is what he made his name doing, around the blogosphere anyway. This time around, he's perturbed at a certain word, a certain term that we skeptics sometimes feel compelled to use when confronting cranks who are not interested in honest debate but rather perpetuating a scientifically discredited point of view because of ideology. Such cranks include creationists, anthropogenic global warming denialists, 9/11 Truthers, "alternative" medicine mavens, and even Holocaust deniers. In fact, that last term goes to the heart of the current kerfuffle, because it is a word that has irritated Matt. It is a word that Matt thinks that we should never, ever use again.

Yes, Matt Nisbet is unhappy with skeptics who use the term "denier," and he's gone on the air for PRI International to express his displeasure.

Actually, when Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney first published their thesis on "framing science," it resulted in a lot of controversy here on the ol' ScienceBlogs. Oddly enough, at least at the beginning, I was one of the few who defended Chris and Matt's thesis that, to communicate complex scientific ideas to the general public it is necessary to "frame" them in terms that resonate with the public. It seemed pretty darned common sense to me at the time based on my being a physician who has to use framing all the time to explain complicated medical issues to patients. I looked at the hostility to the concept of framing that came from a lot of the pure scientists in the blogosphere to the more practical, "applied science" of modern medicine, where framing seemed like an obvious strategy, and concluded that much of the controversy was due to a cultural divide between academics and those who actually did have to explain complex science to the public every day. Unfortunately, over time, I came to realize that, whatever merit the concept of framing may or may not have, in Matt Nisbet's hands it seemed to mean an unrelenting kissing of the posteriors of religious people so as not to "alienate" them and an equally unrelenting scolding of successful science communicators who are too--shall we say?--blunt for Matt's tastes.

My disillusionment with the concept of framing as taught and applied by Matt came to a head this spring, when he and Chris Mooney scolded P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins over the "Expelled!" incident. This was a famous incident in which PZ was refused entrance to a screening of the anti-evolution movie Expelled! while the producer didn't recognize Richard Dawkins with him--and let Dawkins in. Matt even went so far as calling the incident "really, really bad for science" and Chris saying that it "helps Ben Stein, people." I strongly disagreed. Matt even went so far as to state baldly that "it's time to let others be the spokesperson for science."

That's when I came to the conclusion that Matt Nisbet, for all his claims of being "scientific" about gathering data about science communication and what strategies are best, seems utterly clueless about how actually to apply that data and utterly unable to explain why his way is better or demonstrate it to be more effective than a more confrontational stance. Worse, as practiced by Matt Nisbet, framing appears utterly useless and unable to provide practical strategies for combatting what I consider to be the most pernicious form of antiscience out there right now: antivaccinationism. It was at that point that I wished that Chris Mooney would detach himself from Nisbet's orbit, because Mooney seems far less impressed with his own awesomeness and more willing to reassess and retool based on data. True, he's been quite angry in the recent past over his perception of unrelenting hostility towards the framing thesis, but I suspect (or at least I hope) that he is coming to realize that his framing partner has a tin ear.

So what, specifically, is Nisbet's complaint this time around? He doesn't like the term "denier" and thinks that no one should ever use it. Because Mark Hoofnagle has already done the work for me transcribing what Matt said in his interview, I'm going to be lazy, link to him, and steal that section, especially since he has commentary on it with which I largely agree:

Jason Margolis: Denial is a loaded term, often associated with the denial of atrocities in Nazi Germany and because of this, Mathew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University, doesn't like using the term.

Nisbet: It sort of violates a third rail of political rhetoric in that it immediately puts or triggers people's interpretations of the holocaust in the implication of the holocaust denier.

Jason Margolis: Nisbet says when you refer to your opponents as "deniers" you're associating them with some of the most evil people in history.

Nisbet: The counter charge would be "how dare you call me a denier", when that happens now the debate goes in the direction of exactly where you don't want it to go, it becomes a discussion of the personalities involved in the conflict, rather than the substance of the issue, which was your original goal in the first place, so ultimately it end up being very distracting.

Matt also objects to the use of the term "antiscience":

The frame device "denier" should be laid to rest in the same rhetorical grave as other terms such as "anti-science." They serve little purpose other than to feed polarization while also frequently backfiring, turning the debate into a discussion of the alleged underhanded or sensational tactics of science defenders rather than a focus on the substance of the issues themselves.

Worse, these terms are also often inaccurate. Few if any people in modern society are actually "anti-scientific," just like on few issues are the facts or evidence as clear as the Holocaust, the comparison called to mind in any use of "denier" in political discourse.

Hmmm. I guess I'm a big time sinner in Matt's eyes. I frequently and unapologetically apply the term "antiscience" to those who are...well, antiscience. A better example I can't think of than antivaccinationists. They are deniers in every sense of the word. They deny the efficacy of vaccines. They deny the scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism. They are anti-science in that they abuse science, deny it, and torture it to fit their ideology, all the while claiming to wrap themselves in its mantle. Come to think of it, I don't hesitate to use the same sorts of language when it comes to outright quacks. They deny well-established scientific medicine and are antiscience in that they deny well-established science. What else besides a "denier" or "antiscience" can one call a homeopath, given that for homeopathy, multiple well-established physical laws and theories would have to be incorrect. We're not talking global warming, where there is still some degree of uncertainty, not even close.

Now, I'm not oblivious to the fact that the term "denier" is a loaded term that is associated with Holocaust denial. Of course I know that! I've been involved in combatting Holocaust denial myself for a decade now. Indeed, I've made the very point myself that one should be very careful in deploying this term because if it's done poorly it leaves an easy opening for the denialist to claim that he's being called a Nazi (alas and ironically, I can't find the link to my old post where I first made that very point--curse having such a large and extensive blog archive!). However, to take the term off the table completely, as Matt seems to be arguing that we should do, is willingly giving up an accurate shorthand term for what it is that deniers do. The same problem applies to the term "antiscience," which so accurately describes a large variety of pseudocience and ideologically-motivated denial of accepted science. One reaon I refuse to do so is because, well, Matt hasn't exactly covered himself in glory when it comes to his recommendations (read: pontifications and self-righteous orders) about science communication. A more important reason why I refuse to do so because I agree with Mike the Mad Biologist. Getting along and not insulting your opponent unnecessarily are worthy goals, but sometimes they interfere with winning. Sometimes it's necessary to be blunt and tell it like it is. I also tend to agree with Mark Hoofnagle that "denialism" (perhaps a better term than "deniers" because it sounds less like "Holocaust denial" but conveys the same idea) is not about the science. It's about specific and fairly easily recognizable deceptive techniques of argument used by deniers to deny a scientific or scholarly consensus for which there is a large amount of supporting data based on ideological reasons. Indeed, the nature of denialism was well described in the interview in which Matt Nisbet spoke:

  1. "Strategic denialism" or cynical denialism. The speaker knows that a contention or science-based assertion is correct but lies and says it is not, usually as a tactic to get what he wants.
  2. Denialism based on fear. The denialist is afraid to confront a known fact. This tends to be more personal, as in denying the seriousness of a symptom because one is afraid of what that symptom means. I've written a series of posts on the deadly power of denial, specifically this form of denial.
  3. Worldview denialism. This is usually what I'm talking about when I use the term "denialism." It's the denial of science, history, or any other well-established knowledge that conflicts with one's world view. Thus, disparate forms of denialism like Holocaust denial and creationism both fall under this category. Holocaust denial exists because the Holocaust conflicts with a worldview that is sympathetic to the Nazis, for instance, while evolution conflicts with the religious worldview of creationists. (And, no, once again, I'm not saying that creationists are Nazis.)

In fact, what I find rather odd about Matt's reaction to the interview is that he seems to think he's delivered a slam-dunk argument against using terms like "denier" and "antiscience" when in the context of the interview he really has not. Indeed, Jason Margolis was very skeptical of his assessment and seems to have a better idea of what's happening:

Jason Margolis: At a conference of self-labeled climate change skeptics in New York they agree, the term denier is offensive. Yet the speakers themselves continually bring up the term and the idea of the holocaust.

Tim Ball: About five years ago the Times of London referred to me as a climate change denier with all of the holocaust connotations of that term.

Roy Innis: We are deniers, in a very slick way of pushing us into a corner to look as if we like the moral equivalent or the immoral equivalent of the Nazis - holocaust deniers.

I think Mark Hoofnagle gets it right when he points out that these climate change deniers actually seem to view it as a point of pride to be called "deniers" and eagerly claim cry "persecution!" and whine about how they're being likened to Nazis. Indeed, if the term "denier" didn't exist, they would find some other term to take offense over, because viewing themselves as the "persecuted minority" is essential to their success in seeming to have a valid argument. It plays on people's sense of fairness and general belief that there are always "two sides" to a story, even when scientifically there often are not. He's also right when he points out that there is no substantive debate to be held with such people, mainly because they are not interested in substantive debate. They want to create a pseudodebate or a "manufactroversy," in which there is no scientific controversy, but they want to perpetuate the appearance of a "debate," again because the science or history conflicts with their world view. Again, I see no problem calling them on it.

Of course, if you're less pugnacious than Mike, Mark, or me, in my benevolence, I'll suggest an alternative term other than "denier" or "denialist." Lately, I've started to like the term "pseudoskeptic." It captures the essence of what denialists do almost as much as the term "denialist." Remember, a true skeptic is always open to changing his or her mind if the evidence and science demand it. In contrast, no amount of evidence will ever change the mind of a pseudoskeptic. Also, unlike a skeptic, a pseudoskeptic will defend his position with logical fallacies, bad science, misinformation, and misleading arguments, while representing himself as a "skeptic" of established science. Indeed, climate change denialists like to refer to themselves as "skeptics," even though they are in reality pseudoskeptics, as do HIV/AIDS denialists, who like to be known as AIDS "skeptics." Even creationists like to be known as "evolution skeptics." That's because the label of "skeptic" implies reasoned questioning that is characteristic of the scientific method, and, of course, deniers/pseudoskeptics wnat to wrap themselves in the mantle of skepticism.

In the end, though, whatever term you choose to use, denier, denialist, or pseudoskeptic, they all refer to maintainers of a false debate, a pseudodebate, based on a caricature of science and reason, all to support their world view when it is in conflict with reality. Mark Hoofnagle makes an additional point that I tend to agree with. "Framing" may be useful for short term persuasion, but in the long term it's bound to fail. A far more effective way to combat denialism is to teach people what good science is and what it is not, what constitutes sound arguments and what constitutes logical fallacies and bad arguments. Then they'll be more able to recognize for themselves when someone is trying to snooker them with ideologically-motivated pseudoscience. Finally, Matt's "framing" business seems to shun diversity. To Matt, it seems to me, it's his way or the highway. Yet, often different techniques are required for different situations. Sometimes the diplomatic "framing" approach may be effective; other times a more blunt, full frontal assault is required. We should not put all our eggs into one basket of rhetorical armaments, so to speak, any more than the U.S. military would rely only on fighter jets and get rid of armored vehicles and infantry. Different weapons are required for different battles, often different combinations of weapons are needed for different battles. Matt's framing thesis seems utterly oblivious to that simple observation, and that's why I've decided, after having supported it, that, even though it probably has value in a number of situations, as practiced by Matt, framing equals spin equals defeat.

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Problem is, the most accurate terms won't get past most profanity filters..

If people don't want to be referred to as denialists, then they can just show us the evidence and reasoning behind their arguments instead of complaining. In any case, compared to the barrarge of abuse that you get for suggesting that vaccines may protect against disease, radiative physics might be correct, hitler wasn't nice or the Earth wasn't created last tuesday, 'denialist' is quite polite..

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 26 Nov 2008 #permalink

Matt even went so far as to state baldly that "it's time to let others be the spokesperson for science."

Personally I prefer the term "hair impaired" to baldly. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive?

I don't know, Orac... "pseudoskeptic", to me, is far more loaded than "denialist", since it's so closely associated with the people you want to use to describe it. (Who, I have to be honest, have taken the term, which already had a somewhat sketchy connotation when Marcello Truzzi coined it, and essentially pounded it into meaninglessness.)

You now what kills me? We scientists are typically too busy to effectively engage the forces of pseudoscience. Someone in communications who wants to take on the task of defending science should be a godsend, but instead time and again he ends up annoying the scientists. There's a big initial communication hurdle that needs to be cleared.

I think we might be missing the point here, though, and getting hung up on the fact that this specific advocate has some personality issues. You or I may not like him, but his central thesis is correct - science advocates have a serious problem with managing the rhetoric and marketing environment surrounding their claims. There seems to be an assumption in this entry, and in the skeptical subculture in general, that the fact that we're right should automatically "win" the dispute. Unfortunately, the problem here is in no way related to which side is "right." We already know which side is right, and no consistent, reliable, useful epistemology can deny that science is good at finding objective truths. Virtually every issue today that requires skeptical confrontation has little to do with proving which side has the facts right and everything to do with making people want to believe what they would know to be true if they examined it dispassionately.

Because the individuals with whom skeptics frequently engage defend more traditional positions or ideas with more interesting and compelling narratives (conspiracy theories are absolutely terrific works of fiction, for example, and make for a much more interesting and easy to understand world than the alternative), they start out with the upper hand in most of these disputes with the average, uninformed reader practically by default. While I agree that instilling good critical thinking skills in our public makes for a good long-term strategy, that long-term strategy will never have time to pay out unless skeptics and science advocates can make people want to believe what they have to say right now.

That's the problem that Matt's addressing, and maybe he's a bad advocate for his position, but that doesn't make the position wrong, as everybody here should well understand. The sad fact is that when you are engaging in debate with an opponent in a sympathetic position (a situation I remember quite well from any number of high school and college debate rounds) direct, uncompromising confrontation will only rarely, if ever, help you actually convince uninvolved onlookers that you're in the right.

By Brian Seiler (not verified) on 26 Nov 2008 #permalink

Has Matt actually done anything useful yet, or does he just pontificate and criticise others like all the other attention whores on the internet?

Brian, you are right, and yet you have missed the point as well.

Matt doesn't appear to be interested in winning the argument in the sense of the word that I understand it (e.g., convince someone to agree with my position). He doesn't even seem to want to go for a draw, but rather he wants to get down on his knees and give head to his opponents in the hope that they will not roll right over the top of him in mid bob.

Framing as "the tool not described by Matt but used by many of us" is used effectively every day with great effect. The difference is that we accept the odd outright defeat (in terms of convincing an individual) in favor of not abandoning our position so that we might learn from our defeat and convince the next individual.

Michael Egnor is to Orac as Matt Nisbet is to Interrobang. Oooh, that guy makes me fume. What a disgrace.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 26 Nov 2008 #permalink

The problem with Matt is that he doesn't seem to practice what he preaches. The specific frames he advocates are not based on any research or focus groups, but are simply pulled out of his rear. "Framing" may be a sound concept, but Matt seems to think he's exempt from the work required to produce a useful frame.

That's been my problem with him too. Basically his advice for framing evolution is to hide the atheists and let Christian scientists advocate instead. I think that's bad advice; it's more important to emphasize the ability of science to observe, test and predict the nature of the universe regardless of religious affiliation. We should be uniting on the common ground of secularism, rather than throwing the atheists into a closet and telling people to ignore them.

By eliminating the term "Denialist", we are removing the distinction between those scientists who follow the scientific method, participate in the public debate, andwork to convince others based on the evidence, from those who base an ideology on a few high ideals, a couple poorly done or semi-relevant experiments, then avoid the debate by claiming persecution, refusing to accept any contradictory evidence or arguments, and often making fallacious or emotional claims to push their agenda. The denial of the body of evidence for a contrarian point of view is something that can, and should be pointed out to people. We may never convert the denialists, but I doubt we were going to anyways. The point is to educate the populace enough to, if not independently verify the evidence, then at least recognize what is science, and what is pseudoscience, crankery and denialism.

That's been my problem with him too. Basically his advice for framing evolution is to hide the atheists and let Christian scientists advocate instead. I think that's bad advice; it's more important to emphasize the ability of science to observe, test and predict the nature of the universe regardless of religious affiliation. We should be uniting on the common ground of secularism, rather than throwing the atheists into a closet and telling people to ignore them.

Excellent point. Science does not depend on religion or lack of religion.

While 'denier' obviously has valid uses, it does get annoying if you throw it around and use it too much. It gets to the point where people are just applying the label to anyone who disagrees with them. I've been called a 'circumcision denier' because I don't think the benefits justify circumcising babies.

One of the things I'm realizing as I read through all of Matt's research is that he has still failed to perform the critical test - an RCT of framing vs not-framing. His research is frequently based on a poll, or other observation, a trend in the media etc., from which he suggests various interventions based on examples he selects. There is no rigorous study of his suggested tactics, nor a systematic analysis, nor any prospective data (nor is there of mine but I'm not telling the framers that my "communication science" concludes they have to shut up).

I would like to see a trial of framing vs. other strategies. It would have to be well designed, and if he's going to criticize our tactics as ineffective it would need to be tested very carefully. I could imagine four branches. We could have mockery of idiocy. A purely informational data-dump. A "framed" argument. Then a discussion of the argument vs. the anti-science counterargument with a deconstruction of the anti-science techniques (my favored approach).

I really doubt that the kind of "sales-pitch" framing he advocates would really end up being superior to the deconstruction arm of the trial. But hey, we don't know until we actually test it. I'm open to reason, show me my method is inferior with a study that I can sink my teeth into and I'll change my method. Until then he can take his scolding and cram it.

Part of our goal at scienceblogs has been to create a clear framework for answering the demarcation problem. Our practical guide to recognizing denialism exists to create a simple framework which may be used to evaluate arguments for signs of pseudoscience and BS. Ultimately you could consider this is a form of framing. We're saying "Hey, detecting pseudoscience is easy! Everyone can do it! Look for conspiracy theories and cherry picking. Got a fake expert? Logical fallacies? Moving goalposts? Bonus points!" and trying to educate people about how to detect the difference between pseudoscience and the real deal.

Empowering people to detect denialism is hardly an unworthy approach. However, this approach requires one to draw a distinction between the fundamental quality of arguments, and yes, that means giving the other side a label that will always end up being derogatory whether it's pseudoskeptic, denialist, denier, asshat, whatever. We can't stop pseudoscientific arguments from taking hold without some kind of confrontation, and some kind of labeling. Ultimately I think Nisbet is living in a dreamworld if he thinks the solution to the demarcation problem is to ignore it and substitute "sales-pitch" science in its stead.

Yet again, Matt tells us what not to do and never gets around to telling us what we should do. He doesn't like one label? Thinks it's bad (though he never presents any research to show its badness)? Fine. What term should we use instead? Silence.

And labels are central to his argument of frames. Frames are built of labels. How does he think we're going to make use of framing if we can't use labels?

There are cats, and there are dogs. And they're different. It doesn't help anything to ban the use of 'cat'. There will still be non-dogs around.

Matt Nisbett will also censor critical posts on his blog. Apparently, its not good for the frame to have an open debate....

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and has duck DNA, let's just call it a duck.

I don't understand why some people tend to confuse comparing two things or observing common traits between two things with equating two things. If you have a preconceived view that you refuse to look at objectively, and you refuse to even consider any evidence that conflicts with your position, you're probably a denialist. Maybe you're a Moon landing denialist. Maybe you're a holocaust denialist. One type of denialism is worse than the other, but they're both denialism. I don't equate all denialist with the worst of the bunch just because they are all denialists.

Additionally, to be a holocaust denilaist is not the same as being an advocate for genocide, either. It's a dirty, ugly thing to be a holocaust denier, but it's not the same thing as being a full fledged Nazi either. My grandparents were holocaust deniers, and though they were antisemites, they weren't advocates of genocide either. Much of their denialism came from their extreme love of Germany, and their lack of ability to believe the country and people they loved so much could do such a horrible thing. (By no means do I intend to offer any excuse for my grandparents' views on the holocaust.)

The whole thing is a big straw man argument to dodge the criticism, and Nisbet is naively playing along.

"You're equating me with holocaust deniers and Nazis!" No, I never equated you with either of those things, I merely said you were an -xyz- denialist.

By Karl Withakay (not verified) on 26 Nov 2008 #permalink

Anthropogenic global warming denialists?

Might it be just a little strong to put that on the same list as holocaust denial, 9/11 trutherism, young-earth creationism and the rest?

The idea that anthropogenic global warming* is scientifically established fact (or a hypothesis so strongly supported as to require immense burdens to reject) does not seem to be supportable on its face; at the most generous it's a thoroughly plausible hypothesis.

But a plausible hypothesis is not something that cannot be denied with intellectual honesty.

(* Unless by "anthropogenic global warming" we mean only "man's actions have non-zero effect on global temperature"; the truth of that very broad statement is undeniable.

However in practice that is not what is being affirmed or denied by whose involved, in almost all cases.

What is being affirmed or denied is a significant or more often primary effect of man's actions on global temperature changes.

That seems very much open to real scientific debate as the data are gathered and models are refined, modified, and discarded.

Even the cheerleaders of immediate and dramatic action to halt global warming (that just happens to match their pre-existing political agenda and goals) have admitted that it seems to have stopped for a while without any significant change in human action, do they not?)

In other words, calling it "denialism" presupposes a scientific level of certainty which is insupportable at this time by the available evidence.

The carbon forcing models (to take the biggest and most popular part) don't seem to work when you check their predictions against the data, either historically or currently.

(See for instance Monckton in the Forum on Physics and Society - and all of his references.

While the APS sticks by their position that "Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth's climate", note that they are wisely not willing to adopt a statement as to its magnitude, beyond that it's not zero.)

Why is it "denialism" (let alone on par with denying well-documented genocide, or denying the staggeringly strong evidence for evolution/evolutionary speciation) to point that out?

This rhetorical move is disappointing, to say the least.

Pseudoskeptic is pretty good. I prefer "contrarian."

Matt Nisbet has his own problems with "denialism." Maybe he's a denialism denialist?

I'm not exactly sure why anyone cares much what he says. I've yet to see anything resembling evidence that what he's advocated is effective.

Frankly, I think someone like Michael Dowd has a better grip on the state of things than does Nisbet. I've heard from people that Dowd has actually changed their minds. I haven't heard the equivalent about Nisbet.

In truth, the only time I hear about Nisbet is when someone in the science blogosphere mentions him. If not for that, I'd likely never have heard of the guy at all.

I find Nisbet to be one of the most frustrating, disingenuous, and (I'm sorry, I can't frame this "nicely") intellectually dishonest people I've ever met in the blogosphere. I've come to the conclusion that he has an instrinsic, probably emotionally-based, constitutional aversion to candor and bluntness. I think it's so ingrained for him, he literally cannot and does not see that he's doing it. He has an a priori conclusion in his head; that any instance of calling a spade a spade is inherently and by definition bad. It so blinds him that it short-circuits his ability to think as an academic, or as an objective person susceptible to reason. He's certainly not stupid, but he is just as intellectually hobbled on this count as any religious person.

I've seen commenters use measured, almost bland tones (in an attempt not to provoke his knee-jerk offendedness) to logically lay out the case that he may be neglecting real benefits of a direct approach. Nothing works. He either simply refuses to answer - yes, I mean blatantly ignoring the question - or he moves the goalposts and answers a question no one posed. He then pretends he's vindicated his point of view.

Nisbet will not answer anyone who points out that direct, non-marketing language can serve a good purpose that has nothing to do with convincing creationists or deniers. Many have argued that marginalizing wacko religious or ideological views with blunt criticism and mockery is a good thing in and of itself . It shifts societal acceptance away from fake, undeserved deference to lunatics and ideologues, and encourages otherwise timid but rational people to speak up and say, "Hey, this isn't right, and it's not OK to teach it in school." It's obvious to reasonable people that getting to that goal is a very good thing, and is one way to increase rationality in public discourse. It's not the only way, but it's indispensable. Without it, we're left with the ineffective, namby-pamby "respect for viewpoints" that has neutered our ability to call bullshit when we really need to.

Yet Nisbet thinks what matters more is convincing the ideologues that they're wrong. I don't know where he gets the idea that's even possible in all but a few cases. Even worse, he seems to genuinely pity people who affect hurt feelings as a slippery way of deflecting attention from what they're really doing.

As Omar Ali pointed out above, he also censors comments from his blog if they're too critical. Oh yes, he's realized he needs to let a few of the milder ones in for plausible deniablity, but don't be fooled. I've written several responses to his post that are quite similar to this one - bluntly critical, maybe even harsh. But no worse than anything he would expect in the melee of peer-review. He simply doesn't post them (many others have found the same thing), then prissily wrings his hands about the "low tone" of commenters.

An experiment - I submitted the comment I wrote above to Nisbet's blog post where he responds to Orac's and others' critiques of his recent posts with a video titled "Is Name-Calling an Effective Strategy." I prefaced it with the following. Think he'll post it?

"Matt - in the interest of fairness (I don't believe in criticizing someone publicly without them knowing about it), here's a post I left on Orac's blog. I don't expect you'll like it, but I'll be impressed if you post it. A lot of commenters and readers on Scienceblogs would be even more impressed if you addressed it (or any other similar critique of your approach) directly and substantively. It's not name-calling, it's candid, direct criticism."

See for instance Monckton in the Forum on Physics and Society

Monckton the "potty peer"? I'm hard pressed to come up with anyone better qualified to be called an AGW denialist.

"Nisbet: It sort of violates a third rail of political rhetoric in that it immediately puts or triggers people's interpretations of the holocaust in the implication of the holocaust denier."

And yet, denial of and failure to act in response to the fact of climate change has the potential to bring about holocausts that dwarf the 20th century Holocaust.

Likewise, for anti-vaccination "skeptics"; they may bring about the death of thousands, or even millions, before sanity prevails.

Whether this is the result of Nazi-like "Evil", or just unintended consequences of voluntary blindness, the end results are the same.

I consider Matt Nisbett an anti-science crank, as much as I do the anti-vaccers. No wonder he doesn't like the words!

I notice that Matt has responded to the criticism. It's a lame response based on a huge straw man. In case he refuses to post my comment, here's what I said in response:

Most notably Orac, Mike the Mad Biologist, and Mark Hofnagle argue that their preferred brand of name calling remains the best communication strategy.

That's a huge straw man argument. I never argued that name calling is the "best communication strategy." Neither did any of the other bloggers whom you cited. Really, if you're going to respond, please at least do us the solid of responding to what we actually argued, rather than your caricature of it where any use of terms that might be the least bit confrontational suddenly become "juvenile name calling."

I argued that you have utterly failed to convince me that your way is better. Worse, I started out more favorable to your viewpoint than hostile. Indeed, I defended you guys at the beginning. But as I saw what your idea of "framing" seemed to mean when put into actual practice, sorry to say, I became less and less impressed with it and you.

You want to do us a favor? You don't like the term "denier"? Then tell us a better term to use to describe cranks of the sort that use fallacious and deceptive arguments and are not amenable to science and reason. Tell us why it's better, what evidence supports your contention.

I challenge you.

I predict I will wait a long time for a recommendation.

God, that man is infuriating; he's using the same sorts of logical fallacies (straw man argument, for instance, and not even clever straw man arguments) that cranks use.

I'm pretty much on the same page as you, Orac.

I posted this over at Matt's blog. Don't know if he'll let it through, so I'll copy it here:

So instead of engaging in the same self-defeating name calling, what is an alternative strategy?

Careful there. This question is being posed by the same guy who refers to several of his fellow sciencebloggers as "Borat Atheists" and "Don Imus Atheists". It seems to me that you, like anyone else, sometimes use name-calling to get your point across.

As for the term "denialist" or "denier", it's not just name-calling. As I understand the term, it refers to those who use a specific, identifiable set of rhetorical tactics. It's not about content, politics or personality, but about tactics. I think this could be a useful term, because we actually don't have any other term to use to refer to those tactics. At least, it seems to me that that's how Hoofnagel and others intend the term to work.

I'm not saying your framing approach is wrong. I don't think it is. I just don't think that your approach and Mark's approach are mutually exclusive. Different situations call for different strategies and tactics. If someone is using deceptive rhetorical tactics, sometimes it's good to have a term you can use to point out, "Hey! This guy's using deceptive rhetoric!" In other situations, the more gentle approach that you are advocating would be more appropriate. I don't see why you and Mark can't both be right, in a situation-specific sense.…

God, that man is infuriating; he's using the same sorts of logical fallacies (straw man argument, for instance, and not even clever straw man arguments) that cranks use.

Cranks? You mean "denialists".

Careful there. This question is being posed by the same guy who refers to several of his fellow sciencebloggers as "Borat Atheists" and "Don Imus Atheists". It seems to me that you, like anyone else, sometimes use name-calling to get your point across.

Matt is also not above ridiculing physical appearance to get his point across, as when he used an unflattering picture of P. Z. Myers to represent him as the "face of atheism." A quote:

They're usually angry, grumpy, uncharismatic male loners with a passion for attacking and ridiculing religious believers. Any fellow atheist who disagrees with their Don Imus rhetoric, they label as appeasers.

Note to Nisbet: Pot. Kettle. Black.

But the key point that you made that I heartily agree with is that framing and using more --shall we say--blunt rhetoric are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, that's exactly what I argued in the concluding paragraph of this post! Yet, somehow Matt manages to completely misrepresent my argument as saying that "name calling is the better strategy." To me, that's intellectually dishonest.

Before I wade through any more of the comments (I stopped at Brian's), I wanted to pose a defense of framing, which seems to have gotten a really bad rap around science blogs. Note, I am not going to, nor would I want to defend Matt. I think it's quite unfortunate that he has managed to take such a firm ownership of the whole concept of framing, at least around here.

Framing is a very essential aspect of any sort of sales and like it or not, sales is what we are talking about here. There are a great many ideas that the general public needs to be sold on and unfortunately, our competitors often do a much better job of it. I'm not a scientist, nor am I a salesman persay, but sales has always been an important aspect of my business. Framing is an art and in sales an essential art. Not only does one need to come up with a good frame, one needs to come up with a good frame for each demographic one is trying to reach.

This is, I surmise, the fatal flaw in Matt's reasoning. He is looking at the general public as one singular demographic. I really don't understand how someone can actually get a degree in communications, presumably a PHD, and not understand something as fundamental to communication as this; the general public is not one single organism. I'm a bloody high school dropout (though I am now officially enrolled in college - yeah me!!!) and I figured that one out a long damn time ago.

Whether we're talking evolution, atheists aren't cannibals or global warming, it takes different approaches to reach different audiences. And as it is with any product or idea, some folks just aren't going to buy, no matter what or how it's being sold. Some folks are just never going to believe that god didn't do it in the blink of an eye, that atheists aren't really Satan worshiping baby eaters, or that global warming is happening - even if New York and L.A. are under water. It's pointless and futile to try to sell it to them and sometimes the best tact is to show them for the bloody damned morons that they are.

At the same time, there are folks out there who can be sold, but are going to be turned off by those who mock the abysmally, perpetually stupid. For them, they need to hear folks who can frame it in a way that Matt would find acceptable. That doesn't make Matt right, because he claims that everyone else is wrong - they're not, they're just selling to a different demographic. And by my estimation and personal experience, they're successful at selling to the demographic who is buying from them.

As a total aside, there are times when I really want to be a GW denialist from group two. Frankly, the whole thing scares the hell out of me, especially as a parent (not nearly so bad if it was just me, but I brought three kids into this mess). I wish that I could just blithely wander through life not believing any of it, because ultimately, ignorance is bliss and the truth is often traumatizing.

I say this as someone who defended Nisbet in the past and then followed Orac in becoming disgusted with him:

Why is Nisbet still on ScienceBlogs? He started out promising, but he seems have become stuck in counterintuitive mode, where he is trying too hard to attack his supposed allies, to the point of imagining faults where there are none.

Ok, so now I have waded through the rest of the comments on this thread and do have a footnote to add.

It seems that a lot of folks here don't think that they are engaging in marketing language or framing. Certainly Matt doesn't believe that you are (or I am when I engage in discussions in meat world, much of which I base on information I learn from scientists around these parts).

You're wrong and he's wrong. You are absolutely engaged in framing and marketing. And depending on the audience, you all (most of you anyways) do a damn fine job of it. Does blunt force trauma work for everyone? No. And for some people, taking a much milder, almost accommodating approach is going to be far more effective for making the sale.

Note I said almost. One should never back down from the truth, or that which seems to be the truth, based on the best available evidence. Carl Sagan has long been one of my greatest heroes. In part, because though he was gracious and kind, he was also uncompromising. When I was eleven I got to see him speak and had the pleasure of addressing him in the Q&A.

Flattery getting one places, after mentioning I thought of him as one of my personal heroes and asking a reasonably intelligent question, he wanted to meet me when it was over and we got to chat for a few minutes. One of the questions I asked (I was a burgeoning fundamentalist at that age) was did he really not believe in God? He smiled at me and responded that though he could see why, with such a complex and aweinspiring universe to behold, one might feel overwhelmed and believe that some great power had to have made it all happen, he had never actually seen real evidence that such a power or being exists, nor did he expect that such evidence exists.

He didn't try to disabuse me of my own obvious belief in such a power and indeed worded his response in such a way that didn't make me seem wrong, but he made it clear that indeed he absolutely didn't believe in any sort of god, or higher power. Because of that, he was able to inspire me, with his own obvious awe and wonder at the universe around us, that we are a part of and maintain his integrity absolutely - instead of alienating me or compromising. Like the bible puts it, he planted seeds.

And as far as I know, it wasn't just because I was elven, that he treated me with respect and dignity. By all accounts I have seen and read, that is just the sort of man he was. Contrast that with someone like PZ Meyers, and it is easy to assume that Sagan was going about it the right way, while Meyers is flat out wrong and horrible with his framing. But that's simply not true. Sagan and Meyers were/are selling pretty much the same damned thing and both were/are very effective salesmen.

In the same way, the Hoofnagle's are effective salesmen, PalMD's an effective salesmen, Orac's an effective salesmen, Mike the mad biologist's an effective salesmen - I could go on and on with the list. And that, in spite of all of them and others, having different voices and even different framing. But don't ever suppose that any of you are above or simply not engaging in framing. Because you most certainly are, just as I am right now.

Oy - I am not trying to imbue any of the bloggers in the list above with royal pretense, I am just dealing with serious muscle tension and took something that helped. Apparently it also made me refer to several bloggers with the duality of royalty and gods.

This question is being posed by the same guy who refers to several of his fellow sciencebloggers as "Borat Atheists" and "Don Imus Atheists".

Well, he's just obviously wrong. Richard Dawkins is the Borat of atheism. Everybody knows that.

I found that a denier can actually be a useful contributor to a better world. The greater the denier, the better, apparently. From Wikipedia:

"Stockings knitted with a higher denier tend to be less sheer but more durable."

OK, so it's talking about stockings but it's still the same spelling...

By Ancient Brit (not verified) on 26 Nov 2008 #permalink

While I agree with most of what's said here, one quibble seems unavoidable: the 9/11 "truthers" aren't denying much except the report of one mediocre commission. In their case, the core problem lies in what they assert (and the cherry-picked evidence & convoluted logic underlying same).

The same could be said of many alt-medicine advocates, and the biblical literalists among creationists. (As most of creationism consists of shallow arguments against evolutionary biology, "denialism" is the inescapable label for that persuasion.)

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 26 Nov 2008 #permalink

Sigivald --

Quoting a (failed) politician as a scientific authority who managed by sleight of hand to get a non-peer reviewed article into a journal - and then pretending that this is in any way equal to the vast weight of evidence supporting AGW - is the very essence of denialism.

The tell tale signature of denialism is, as is usual, the complete absence of an alternative model. Huge screeds are poured out on the subject of (say) a small alteration to proxy data, or a quickly corrected entry in the GISS temperature series, but very little effort is given to an alternative model for the observations.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 26 Nov 2008 #permalink

Ancient Brit, it's also pronounced "den-yay" instead of "den-EYE-er". It refers to the gauge of the knit. So not entirely the same thing.

Kristin, I strongly suspect that Ancient Brit was not being completely serious ;)

DuWayne and company:
Of course we're all doing 'framing'. Most of the time we do it without thinking, which is one of the issues. But we certainly talk differently to a 3 year old than a 12 year old than a 22 year old. And if we're chatting to someone at a ballgame we'll come up with different topics and phrasings than if we ran in to (what turned out to be) the same person in business dress in the lobby of a major corporation. That side is trivially obvious to most of us in science (we get some extra lessons once we try to talk about our latest fascination with someone who doesn't share it). I figured it out some decades ago, and have been applying it to talking to people (including other scientists) about my science ever since.

The part I, and I think Orac, were hoping for from the 'framers' was how to do it better. They promised such. And neither of us thinks we're perfect at it. Yet their positive advice is vaporously useless -- 'do research' (fine; what should be researched, how, and can you get the result back to me by Friday when I'm talking to a reporter?) or 'pay attention to your communication departments or public affairs offices' (nice, but what about those of us who don't have such offices, or do but they won't get back to us until a few months after the interview, or who turn out to have equally useless advice?) Or, as now, their advice is uselessly negative (even if it were entirely correct, which is far from obvious at this point) -- "don't use denier", "don't let PZ Myers out in public".

Even if the advice were sound, it's useless until combined with what to do instead. Orac's failed to get any constructive demonstration from Matt on point blank request. My occasional such request on Matt and Chris's blogs, like the one I submitted below, has simply been ignored. Maybe this one will fare better. Still, the thing is, Matt has been fundamentally and persistently negative (but concrete on what he's negative about) and his positives are either trivially obvious or shear vapor.

As many have commented, and it truly is baffling: If Matt is an expert on framing, and framing permits one to communicate effectively to a target audience, why is he failing so miserably on communicating to his target audience of science communicators? His target here is far narrower than the one that I (as someone who works on climate) or Orac are nominally working on -- the entire country or world. If he, an expert working on a much simpler problem, can't do it, why does he keep sniping at those of us trying to do the much harder problem? At least we are trying.

Post attempted (9:42 est 27 Nov) at Matt's blog (original thread)
Jeremy, maybe you, if not Matt, will answer: What is Matt's framing except a matter of providing a set of neat little boxes to put things in? He argues for the necessity of a simplified structure, a 'framework', rather than the fully detailed one he complains of scientists mistakenly trying to provide.

If you and Matt and others dislike 'denialist' as a frame for those who are actively denying the science in an area, fine. But in telling others not to use it, but that we should still be 'framing', tell us what term you want to be used instead. Because there really are people who are actively denying the science, senators whose climate 'experts' run to science fiction author MDs, micrometeorologists who've never published on anything larger than a few square meters of forest, and the like. You don't like 'denialist', fine. What term do you want instead?

Note that while you and Matt advocate studiously avoiding an appropriate label, the denialists are actively trying to apply a different one to themselves for public consumption -- labels like 'honest', 'scientist'. If framing works at all, letting their self-framing go unchallenged is a suicidal tactic. What is your counter?

In reading the preceding (oops, I buried a helpful part of framing), it's true that I have, for my own reasons, advised commentators on my blog not to use labels like this or others. And that one of my articles (August) is titled 'Labelling instead of thinking'.

Robert Grumbine -

Could you do me a favor and actually read what I wrote? I know it's rather long, but it would really clear up a misconception you seem to have about my motivation in writing what I did.

Specifically, please read the part where I was actually supporting those who use the term denialist (I do so myself quite often) and decry Matt's coopting of the concept of framing. I despise Matt precisely because he has basically made framing a dirty word for a lot of folks, when framing is an essential aspect of any communication.

And I wrote what I did, because Orac is the only bloigger addressing this discussion who seems to recognize that the concept of framing has value. I would argue that not only does it have value, but the recognition of what one is doing also has immense value. When we are aware of what we are doing, it makes the doing far more effective.

To make it clearer; I have spent much of my working life self-employed as a handyman and remodeler. When I am dealing with different client, I must make a judgment on how best to communicate with a particular client and cannot assume that I can frame it the way I did for the last customer who had a similar problem. Before I really became conscious of the concept of framing, I just blithely assumed that everyone needed to hear about the problem the same and quite often I overwhelmed or otherwise turned clients off - often losing the job in the process. By becoming more aware of what I was doing, I found it possible to make a judgment about a client and frame things the way I believe will best suit them. For some that means being very comprehensive with my explanations of the problem and my solution for it, taking them step by step through the process - until I know that they understand exactly what is wrong and why my solution is the most effective method for addressing it. On the other end, some clients just want a rough estimate and don't care about what the problem is or how I am going to fix it.

And I have found that it is also effective in dealing with people who have been inundated with woo and/or denialism. I do exactly the same thing - make a judgment and attempt to frame my arguments accordingly. In both realms, it is also critical to constantly be reassessing their reception and my framing.

Put simply, just as the first step to recovery from addiction is admitting you have a problem, the first step to effective communication, is recognizing what it is you're doing.

"Such cranks include creationists, anthropogenic global warming denialists"
AGW denialists, cranks... ? Wow.
So those scientists (and counting) are cranks ?
Come on Orac, be serious!

"There is no proven link between human activity and global warming." Yuri Izrael, vice-chairman of the ... IPCC.

What is especially weird to me about this kerfluffle is that using the term "denialist" is using a frame, and an extremely useful one. The term alerts the possibly-persuadable undecideds that the extremist claims being made are indeed extremist, that they are not made in good faith but come from an underlying agenda, and that real debate with such folks is not really possible. That to me looks like an excellent way to frame the issue. It doesn't mean you also don't have to provide the scientific arguments in support of your position, but what it does mean is that you don't worry about the feelings of the denialist. The goal is to convince the convinceable, and one tactic to do that is to make clear that the extremists are not rational and not arguing in good faith, and thus can be ignored. "Denialist" is a great shorthand for that.

Demesure -

You, see, this is the problem. It's just simpler to use a label for people who quote mine and post lists in lieu of actually wanting to learn about the subject; you are obviously a denialist.

And you are free to lose the label by correctly telling us how global warming is meant to work. You don't have to believe it, but being able to describe something you don't believe in in neutral terms is a very important cognitive task - beyond most denialists.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 27 Nov 2008 #permalink


What is especially weird to me about this kerfluffle is that using the term "denialist" is using a frame, and an extremely useful one. The term alerts the possibly-persuadable undecideds that the extremist claims being made are indeed extremist, that they are not made in good faith but come from an underlying agenda, and that real debate with such folks is not really possible.

This is interesting to me, as my experience is quite different. The people I know who deny that vaccinations are reasonably safe and useful or deny that climate change exists (or if it exists that it has human causes) mostly don't hear the word "denier" as a negative and don't know it's meant to label someone as an extremist who isn't speaking in good faith. If I called one of them, for example, a global-warming denier, he/she would probably nod and say, "That's right; I deny that it exists."

Even now, when I myself hear a phrase like "science-denier," recognizing as I do that "denier" is meant to be a criticism of extremists rejecting solid evidence because of some personal agenda, my very first emotional response is still an annoyed resistance to what sounds like an attempt to intimidate me into not thinking for myself, a kind of "Accept what I'm saying without question, because if you decide you disagree with me, The Person Who Knows, it means you're a moron and deserve to be insulted."

It would interesting to get some data on whether "possibly-persuadable undecideds" in general hear "denier" as a reasonable warning against non-evidence-based extremism or as a rhetorical attempt to manipulate/intimadate them into not thinking for themselves or as a simple statement of fact without positive or negative connotation or as something else.

Blunt force is what convinced me to side with you guys and get a little foamy now and again. That's why I'm all for the PZ frame.

DuWayne: We're not in any big disagreement, so I'm baffled by your response.

Certainly we all frame. Certainly it's useful; that's why we do so. I also agree with you that it's a good thing to know about it and use it consciously -- I gave my example of doing so, you gave yours. That's one of my points, however, that most of us (you, me, Orac, ...) figured out framing on our own. None of us needed Matt to tells us about it. None of us hit a communication class (certainly I didn't) that explained framing to us. It's something that most of us figure out sooner or later as a result of talking to people and being in situations of trying to get them to understand something, or to persuade them of things.

Given that we do figure this out on our own. What's needed from a 'framing expert' is the next steps -- how do you make good frames? What frames are commonly held, and by which audiences? I know, for instance, that a common frame, held by most people who have not studied physics (and a fair number of those who have) is Aristotle's physics -- things move because they're being pushed, and the like. But it was another scientist who told me about this, not the 'expert' in framing.

Nisbet's response over at Framing Science:

No one is constructing a straw man. I pointed readers to your reactions to the interview and linked to the pages long postings. Readers can judge those responses and then move on to the rest of my post.

I personally don't have the motivation or the time to engage in an endless blog debate about these issues. I've linked my main post to a forthcoming 30 page book chapter that explains in detail my alternative strategy. I've also linked to video interviews and on my side bar there are links to other audio interviews and articles. I'm also giving a number of public talks this spring in New York, DC, and other cities where readers can turn out to listen, discuss, and debate.

It's Thanksgiving weekend. Monday I get back to the office with teaching to wrap up and various research projects to finish. I think we've articulated our positions and discussed our differences. Time to move on!



"I don't know what the word 'strawman' means, but I do think this would be a good opportunity to plug my own books and talks. Besides, I've got better things to do than continue a conversation with a sciblogs colleague."

Also, can't help but notice he isn't allowing critical comments through from anyone who isn't a blogger here. At least so far.

Yeah, Nisbet's response is pretty galling. If he personally doesn't have the motivation or the time to engage in an endless blog debate about these issues, then why the hell is he actually, you know, blogging? I think perhaps the keyword in the quote is "debate", as in "exchange ideas", as in "listen to people who might think you're wrong". In that respect Nisbet's statement is factually correct: He doesn't have the motivation to engage in an actual exchange of ideas, as opposed to drive-by bloviating.

And yeah, the constant self-promotion of his appearances and books gets mighty wearying, and the note in his original posting about the audience size for his next talk ("Already more than a 100 attendees have signed up") simply the most egregious example of this, bordering damn close to argumentum ad populi.

"Blunt force is what convinced me to side with you guys and get a little foamy now and again. That's why I'm all for the PZ frame."

I think I've seen you get what you call "foamy," and it's not what I'd call "foamy." "Foamy" is a synonym for "rabid," and I tend to think of "rabid" as implying some level of detachment of reality: unfair caricatures, mistaking "once" for "several times, after being warned" (esp. when combined with misleading vagueness), likening Eugenie Scott to Neville Chamberlain, non-argument arguments, that sort of thing. Foaminess is not bluntness, but truthiness.

The problem with the PZ frame is that it gets being foamy and being blunt confused, and encourages foaminess. As we've recently seen, the problem with the Nisbet frame is that it too gets being foamy and being blunt confused, but instead discourages bluntness. Notice how Nisbet confuses what name-calling even is. Calling John Gotti a criminal isn't name-calling, just a blunt statement of fact. Now calling Gotti a scumbag, that's name-calling. Calling Bjorn Lomborg a denialist is simple bluntness, more like calling Gotti a criminal than calling him a scumbag.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 27 Nov 2008 #permalink

As predicted, Matt Nisbet didn't let my post through. See above for what I tried to submit to his blog. Do you believe it was "spam" or "inappropriate?" What a thoroughly dishonest hack. I'm glad to see he let Orac through, though, if only to give himself the chance to misrepresent his opponents again.

I'm going to go off on a tangent here, so I apologize pre-emptively.

In light of the current economic implosion, I've been reading up on Austrian-school economics. One of the fascinating insights offered by the Austrians is that, just like prices communicate how available a good or service is, interest rates indicate how much investment in the long-term future there is.

When people see abnormally low prices for a good, like water or gasoline, they waste it on frivolous uses until prices rise back to normal. If the government sets price controls to stop the price from rising, then the good runs out completely and the result is a shortage -- people wasted it, because they didn't value it enough, because the price was too low.

A similar thing happens with interest rates. When people see abnormally low interest rates, they waste it on credit cards and other debt for mundane things.

"Debt", of course, means borrowing now and paying in the future. People take on debt because having X dollars now is more useful than having X dollars in the future: people have a time preference of now over later, and this time preference is why interest rates exist. But if everybody puts too much value into having their money now, there is no savings or investment. Without savings, there's no money for banks to loan, so interest rates go sky-high. Similarly, if everyone is patient enough that they're willing to put money aside for a bigger reward in the future, savings increase and interest rates fall.

Therefore, a low interest rate in a healthy market means that there's no worries about the future, because plenty of people are already saving up money to make the future better. But if the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates artificially (by printing money in "open market operations" to set a price control on debt), people feel like there's no need to worry about the future even though not enough people are actually tending to the future. They falsely feel that everything's taken care of, so they waste credit on immediate gratification.

They also devalue investment in the future, because they falsely believe that there's already too much investment in the future. As with price controls, the low prices encourage wasteful debt, and then there's no more credit left for important investments. This extends to scientific education and discovery. Low interest rates cause people to devalue science and math, because science and math don't pay off immediately.

Robert Grumbine -

Sorry, I misunderstood where you were going.

Pleas keep in mind that I am a high school drop-out, who recently got on track as a college student. I am not a formally educated "expert" on framing, though I have consciously used framing for most of my working like.

I think that just as Matt's fatal flaw is the failure to realize that there is a need for multiple frames, when selling science, you too need to understand that need. Ultimately, this is where an actual communications expert should be very useful. Not so much in telling you what to sway, but at disseminating what you and other scientists have to say to a great many audiences.

Honestly, I think that the way most of the science bloggers I read put things, is exactly the way that they should frame it. Since we're here at Orac's blog, I will use him as an example. Orac is very good at good at educating people who have a moderate grounding in logic, a reasonable sense of humor and a relatively minimal education in science. This is not to say that he isn't able to reach a more science literate audience, just that he is adept at breaking down relatively complex ideas, into laymen terms.

Now if you don't have a sense of humor, he's not going to get anywhere with you. Likewise, if you're incapable of basic logic, he isn't going to have the ability to take you through it at your level. The good news is, he can disseminate things to an audience that has the patience to actually break it down into small enough bites that such folks won't choke on it. Indeed, I have done exactly that in the meat world on numerous occasions, using information that I learned from him.

Or we can take the Mark Hoofnagle, who is just not for everyone. His receptive/effective audience is going to be relatively small, compared to that of Orac (not saying this is reflected in actual blog traffic), because ultimately, his goal is much different, as is his frame. But I would also say that what he does/has done, is much more important. It certainly has been for me, because I am what I like to describe as pathologically credulous. I am easily swayed by reasonable, seemingly logical rhetoric. I also have an innate desire to believe people around me.

Mark and Chris have the very important goal of teaching people to spot denialism, AKA bullshit. This has been invaluable to me and is very useful for people like me. Chris is a little more palatable to the common man, but both of them are really more effective as teachers of teachers. Were I a college professor, (which I intend to be someday) I would make Chris's denialist deck, required reading for my students. I am going into psychology and believe that it would be a very useful tool in dealing with patients in a clinical setting. But I have also directed people I have dealt with in the meat world to Denialism blog, because I felt that understanding how to detect bullshit would be particularly useful for that person. But as often as not, I would find that I had to really explain it to that person after they checked it out.

I guess what I am getting at, is that for most, it's a matter of just doing what you're doing (admittedly, I haven't checked out your site). The value of framing and having an awareness of framing, isn't so much to change what you're doing, but to help you become conscious of exactly what it is your doing to see if you can't do it just a little better. And for others, it may well be that gaining that awareness, will push them into directions they really hadn't considered before. For my own part, that is exactly what happened.

Ah, so according to Matt, one can go ahead and misrepresent an opponent's argument to your heart's content, as long as you throw in a link to the actual post that you're distorting.

This must be that "framing" I've heard so much about.

By Screechy Monkey (not verified) on 27 Nov 2008 #permalink

Dr Frank, thanks for stepping in on my behalf :)

And Danimal, being of the ahirsute persuasion myself, I prefer "follicly challenged" - slightly lower stigma IMHO.

As a sci-tech writer I get to be a framer for a living, so I'm interested in the semantic sparring here. But I can never resist throwing in a tongue-in-cheek comment when the urge takes me :)

By Ancient Brit (not verified) on 27 Nov 2008 #permalink


I'd be careful taking Austrian thinking too seriously -- Hayek and Von Mises tended to take a rather Aristotelian view of economics, i.e. everything was deduced from first principles without any actual reference to what happens on the ground in functioning economies. Michael Huber's Non-Libertarian FAQ has a lot more info, but the upshot is that even when the Austrians are right, they aren't necessarily right for the right reasons, so double-check their conclusions with other thinking.

Uh Huh. So, what I see here is Nisbet shooting his mouth off again... I'll pass.


I'd meant to emphasize my agreement with you about the importance of multiple approaches. Got distracted and posted prematurely. The world is a very big place, and there are a lot of people with a lot of different frames to be reached. This is something Matt and Chris ignore, which irritates me. Just as you say -- the different blogs attract and reach different audiences. The more different types of blogs, the better the odds of reaching all people from one or another.

Over at my blog (and you're certainly welcome; I also include a place for questions that needn't be connected to any recent blog post of mine -- creatively called 'question place'. I think #3 is the most recent, posted in October.) I have taken a particular view and approach. Not that I think it's necessarily the best, and it isn't even the only approach I take with people in 3d. But ... it does seem an under-represented line, and it is one of the lines I do take, so I'm going ahead that way. (No 'denialist' talk, I'm not using calculus, ...) Mine runs towards climate-related topics, with digressions to running and farther afield.

Tulse wrote:

What is especially weird to me about this kerfluffle is that using the term "denialist" is using a frame, and an extremely useful one. The term alerts the possibly-persuadable undecideds that the extremist claims being made are indeed extremist, that they are not made in good faith but come from an underlying agenda, and that real debate with such folks is not really possible. That to me looks like an excellent way to frame the issue.


I don't associate the term "denier" with only Holocaust deniers. I was not aware that they had some special claim on the word. I assumed that like many other common nouns in the English language, they can be specified or limited with the use of attributive adjectives. (In this case, the adjectives are just nouns like "holocaust" or "evolution" or "vaccine" that are used as adjectives.)

My first response to hearing Nisbet's latest complaint was "Jesus Christ, dude. It's basic grammar." There's the general group of deniers, and then there are the specific types of them. There is no reason to presume any sort of necessary moral equivalency among them, any more than there would be to presume a moral equivalency among different kinds of, for example, advocates.

There may be a negative connotation, but the word implies that they are refuting something for ideological rather then scientific (or other objective) reasons. Not pointing that out would be remiss, and would be a frame that afforded the denialists a degree of decorum that is largely undeserved.

The whole thing just reeks of a manufactured controversy, bordering on concern trollishness.

Personally, I like "crank" rather than pseudoskeptic.

it fits.

It's shorter.

Everybody knows that you're talking about when you use the word. It automatically makes the crank's ideas DISMISSABLE.

What's not to like about the term?

Chronos, this discussion is not about economics. While it's a fascinating topic*, it has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Unless you can show a relationship between Austrian School economics and communications framing, would you please not clog the discussion with irrelevancies.

*I'm a professional economist and I find the topic fascinating.

By 'Tis Himself (not verified) on 29 Nov 2008 #permalink

I've noticed that Nisbet is good at describing what he doesn't like (negative comments, strident comments, PZ Myers, name calling, etc.), he's quite poor at describing what he does like. For a professional communicator with a PhD in the subject, he's not a particularly effective at communications.

By 'Tis Himself (not verified) on 29 Nov 2008 #permalink

Nisbet is a concern Blogger with a severe case of minnion horde envy - hence his dislike of PZ in pariticular as well as other bloggers such as Irac with mini hordes of minnions.

By Militant Agnostic (not verified) on 29 Nov 2008 #permalink

For a professional communicator with a PhD in the subject, he's not a particularly effective at communications.

It is the supreme irony of Nisbet's endeavour.

The world is a very big place, and there are a lot of people with a lot of different frames to be reached. This is something Matt and Chris ignore, which irritates me.

I think that's an excellent summary. As I'm fond of pointing out (and probably have already here), it's the firebreathers who won me over. My own internal dialogue took on that form when I was thinking about those "big questions" before I even met any of the skeptics I now read so often.

I needed a blunt frame to help me with the final steps. The sorts of things Nisbet and company promote would have just gotten me into inaction about my beliefs.

Aquaria: the problem with "crank" is that it sounds too much like a description of what someone is rather than what they do. It sounds a little bit like a personal attack, which can be offputting, but more importantly it implies that everything the person in question says and does is irrational. The problem is that many cases of denialism involve a "blind spot," an idee fixe in which a person can reason carefully about everything but their pet subject. Linus Pauling on nutrition or Cyril Burt on intelligence are the classic examples; Sandy Szwarc is actually a pretty good skeptic when she stays away from the relationship of energy balance to weight gain/loss; social and educational critic Alfie Kohn's views on ADHD are nonsensical but he has really good insights on the role of artificial zero-sum competition and knee-jerk behaviorism.

The negative effect here is that if you label someone like that a "crank" and then your audience is exposed to that person talking about a subject they aren't cranky on, they're likely to dismiss your concern, attributing it to rivalry or sour grapes or what have you. With "denier" or "denialism" it's easier to qualify the precise sphere in which the person is being irrational and therefore convince the persuadable that the denialist is operating outside his area of expertise.

Also, "crank" doesn't really describe people who are deliberately BSing, like the strategic denialists mentioned above, nor is it all that satisfactory a description of someone who is in denial of a fact that would threaten one's livelihood if acknowledged.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 30 Nov 2008 #permalink

Y'all haven't known many real cranks, have you?

I've lived in Texas, most of my life, so I've dealt with real cranks, most of my life. Educated and not so educated. Doesn't matter. Crankism crosses all socioeconomic lines.

Anyhow, plenty of cranks make shit up to make their point. Or, more precisely, to WIN an argument. Plenty of them know it's crap, but they will still say it. Just to be right, no matter what the cost.

That's why they're cranks.

For those who wish to behave as 10 year olds, and label others as "denialists", "cranks", etc, Pareto's Principles and the 80/20 rule clearly show that the minority viewpoint is often the correct one, while the opinions of the masses are often trivial, worthless, or flat out wrong.

After Pareto made his observation and created his formula, many others observed similar phenomena in their own areas of expertise. Quality Management pioneer, Dr. Joseph Juran, working in the US in the 1930s and 40s recognized a universal principle he called the "vital few and trivial many" and reduced it to writing. In an early work, a lack of precision on Juran's part made it appear that he was applying Pareto's observations about economics to a broader body of work. The name Pareto's Principle stuck, probably because it sounded better than Juran's Principle.
As a result, Dr. Juran's observation of the "vital few and trivial many", the principle that 20 percent of something always are responsible for 80 percent of the results, became known as Pareto's Principle or the 80/20 Rule.

What It Means

The 80/20 Rule means that in anything a few (20 percent) are vital and many(80 percent) are trivial.

What does this say about the 80% who are busily following each other nose to butt in labeling the 20% as denialists and cranks and pseudoscience.

It clearly says Beware the masses. Consensus beliefs have historically been just that, beliefs, not based in reality.

An antidote or counterdose is a substance which can counteract a form of poisoning.

By Anitdote for O… (not verified) on 03 Dec 2008 #permalink

Did that mass of psychobabble have a point?

The point seems to be "any minority viewpoint must be right."

blah blah blah GALILEO blah blah blah GALILEO

You know why we even know the name "Galileo"? Because there was only ONE OF HIM, so his name is easy to remember. We don't bother remembering the names of all the people who thought they knew better than the established consensus of experts but turned out to be wrong. We just call the whole group "denialists."